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Salem's Lot (2004)

Updated on January 14, 2012

Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, Samantha Mathis, James Cromwell and Rutger Hauer star in Mikael Salomon's rethink of Stephen King's classic vampire tale.

Father Callahan becomes the focal point of Peter Filardo’s teleplay. In Tobe Hooper’s film, the cleric had been cruelly demoted to a background figure that is easily defeated by James Mason’s aristocratic smarm. In King’s novel, he is an alcoholic minister who is fighting his beliefs and longs for the theological battle that Barlow brings to Jerusalem’s Lot. Holding his cross high, he smotes the doors of the Marsten house in view of the open-mouthed vampire hunters, but is unable to repeat the miracle as the glow of his cross gradually fades when he is confronted by the vampire in the Petrie home. In the book, it is Father Callahan who takes the vows of the blood communion, but the author frustratingly leaves the effects to our imagination as Father Callahan quits the town where the devil has taken seed.

James Cromwell’s Father Callahan is introduced in the all-new and inventive prologue, not found in the novel, giving out charity to the homeless and then being violently attacked by a wandering hobo who turns out to be Benjamin Mears played by Rob Lowe. Through the events described by Mears’ dying author, we come to understand that the good Father has turned to the cause of the vampire after taking Barlow’s communion;

“Whoever feeds you is your God” states the vampire opening his hand with a shard of broken glass.

When Jerusalem’s Lot is over-run by vampires and nothing else, we imagine that the reverend has drifted from town to town, opening up new avenues for the late- rising diners as Mears and young sidekick, Mark Petrie, follow with sharpened stakes and glowing crucifixes.

As in the previous telefilm, Salem’s Lot is stolen by Barlow’s henchman Richard Straker, this time played by Donald Sutherland. His energetic and eccentric turn disarming the viewer every time the camera picks him out. Straker confesses to easy retirement as most of his business is carried out online and takes advantage of deals offered by poverty-stricken widows agreeing an on the spot cash transaction for their happy memories. More sinister, however, are the memories that he brings to the denizens of the town. He helps landlady Eva Prunier, (Julia Blake), recall dark secrets about her own past as being instrumental in inviting the evil into the town through her own adolescent naivete as she indulges in orgiastic revels with schoolfriends and the most evil man that the town has known, Hubie Marsten. Straker is destroyed by the vampires when the Marston House is rushed by the vampire hunters. He is left hanging and bled dry, as in the novel, in a sequence that was impossible to film for television in 1979. James Mason had to be content with being gunned down like a B movie heavy.

All the characters in Mikael Salomon’s treatment are dark and sinister. Larry Crockett (Peter Grubb), is turned into a vampire of the money grabbing variety. He also enjoys sexual favours culled from his own daughter and becomes obsessively jealous when the local retard, Dud Rogers, makes eyes at her. He happily lays the foundations for Barlow to insinuate himself into the town and gets a well-earned death sequence dying amongst the garbage as the vampires batten onto him.

Dr Jimmy Cody (Robert Mammone), is a player who drives expensive cars and refuses to settle down to marriage, forcing his character to take on the key responsibility of the novel’s Corey Bryant, by being caught in a compromising position with the local talent; in this case, sandy McDougall played with sluttish intensity by Bree Desborough. He is embroiled in blackmail by trailer trash husband, Roy and requests a loan from a doctor friend, seventies Spider-man Nicholas Hammond. Admitting his sexual proclivities to Ben Mears and bitten in his pursuit of Marjorie Glick, he trades in his car to save the McDougall infant and is killed while invading the Marston cellar by falling head first onto a live buzz saw.

Sue Norton (Samantha Mathis), is accurately attached to her mother’s apron strings and admits to being too frightened to leave home. She sends out hopeful emails across the world advertising her Art degree and quietly wishes that they’ll never be answered. When she is trapped in the Marsten House with Mark Petrie (Daniel Byrd), she is the vampire left unstaked as Father Callahan and Ben Mears begin their destructive orgy. Although still no more than a background love-interest, her character is written with more personality than Bonnie Bedelia’s Susan, who became little more than a damsel in distress.

The sex-appeal in Salem’s Lot is placed in the hands of bored housewife Marjorie Glick. In Paul Monash’s earlier screenplay, Mrs Glick was reduced to being a late-birthing mother waiting for her lost son’s return. Her scenes, played by Mrs James Mason, Clarissa Kaye, play out like a modern retelling of The Monkey’s Paw as said son, Danny Glick’s visitations are relayed through hope-accented dialogue from the grieving mother as she collapses into the arms of her mute husband. Rebecca Gibney’s thirty-something flirt is more rounded in characterization as she becomes increasingly paranoid by the frightening phone calls purported to be from her two dead offspring. She accepts her fate armed with heavy breathing and a Monroe pout as she swings wide her front door to let the demon enter the familial home. Her final scene has her panting uncontrollably in bed as son Ralphie chews on her wrists before attacking his nosey father.

Dud Rogers and Charlie Rhodes are integral characters in the novel but were inexplicably dropped in the 1979 version. Dud works at the town dump and fantasizes over pre-teen tease Ruthie Crockett, the daughter of landlord Lawrence Crockett who holds the title deed for the Marsten House. A hunchback by birth, Dud feels that his deformity has limited his chances amongst the townspeople and he spends the long nights drinking and shooting at the dump rats that escape when he sets the dump on fire; but he proves to have a canny inbuilt sense for business as he sells discarded artefacts back to their owners for double the price! His character is the first to meet the elusive Kurt Barlow, as he also does in the film. Brendan Cowell loses his literary counterparts abject cynicism and his character of Dud has the viewer feeling disgusted at their own lack of sympathy for the afflicted as he hopelessly pursues the object of his affections. We find ourselves cheering when, as a vampire, Dud wins the hand of the abused Ruthie and turns the tables on her debauched father. Dud Rogers is the only character to show any real humanity in Salem’s Lot.

Charlie Rhodes (Andy Anderson), is played with the right type of EC nastiness that King originally intended. An ex-War veteran who drives the school bus and treats the schoolchildren as recruits under his command and forcing them to walk if they don’t adhere to his rules. His comeuppance is the best in the movie – and the novel - as the undead children attack him and take him down on his own bus.

Matt Burke has his name returned to him but changes his whole ethnicity and is given a secret life in Portland. Played by Andre Braugher, he joins the fight against Barlow through his respect for Ben Mears and sums up the author’s character as being, ‘antagonistic, emotionally detached and lacking a moral centre‘. He stops friends Floyd Tibbetts and Mike Ryerson from coming to blows and is visited by the changed Mike in a frustratingly muffed scenario that hints at a disturbingly deviant homosexual tendency to his character. In hospital, he informs the vampire hunters that they, too, must resort to the most underhanded means available to defeat the evil, until being finally sought out and staked through the heart by James Cromwell’s defrocked cleric.

The vampires are the drawing power of Salem’s Lot. Both versions hold cracking vampire attacks and avert our attention from screenplays that try to emulate the grandiose prose of the novel, but fall short on many occasions. In the novel, Ben Mears refers to Barlow as ‘Count Comic book’ and the inclusion of added scenes of Father Callahan recruiting his minions on a sound stage locale and roaring vengeance against his nemesis takes us very much into comic book territory as the Marston House and the town explode around them in flames. Rutger Hauer adds a humanity to Barlow that was missing in Reggie Nalder’s depersonalised monster. His vampire has lived for centuries and - as is evidenced in his final meltdown - has worn many skins. He offers cures for life-changing maladies and power, money and fame to those who know where to find it. Unfortunately, as in the earlier version, Barlow is staked all too easily by Rob Lowe’s author-on-a-visit and as the end credits focus on Ben Mears’ own death and Mark Petrie‘s escape to an uncertain future, we are spared the prospect of the hope for any kind of sequel.

Stephen King’s novel it seems, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, defies film-makers to make the definitive film adaptation and this author predicts that we haven’t seen the last of the population of Salem’s Lot.

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      Dee 5 years ago

      A fantastic and thorough review of a film I haven't seen but reading this review makes me want to see it toot sweet! I love the comparisons with the book and an insight into how the book differs and how it has been adapted for cinema. The reviwere shows real craft in his writing and an exceptional understanding of the film from novel genre. Fab.

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